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What Makes The .38 Special A Great Self-Defense Round?

By 03/27/2019April 30th, 202438 SPL, Reviews

The .38 Special is one of the best revolver cartridges ever made. Because it was introduced in the late 19th century as a black powder cartridge and has not changed dimensionally in that time, today’s .38 Special is a mild recoiling, low-pressure round that enjoys a very healthy following. The cartridge itself has come in a number of iterations over the years and is the parent case for the more powerful .357 Magnum. The .38 Special can be safely fired in guns chambered in .357 Magnum as a result, which gives shooters a wide power spectrum to take advantage of.

Today’s self-defense .38 Special is most commonly used in short-barreled ‘snub nose’ revolvers such as the Ruger LCR and Smith & Wesson J-Frame. These revolvers are purpose-made for concealed carry and have features that make them ideal for self-defense. Steinel Ammunition’s Snub Nose Pro load was created for these small guns and is designed to perform within the velocity limits imposed by short barrels, unlike many other types of ammo on the market which are designed around longer barrels.

Women

The .38 Special in a snub nose revolver is one of the most popular carry guns for women. Women represent a rapidly growing demographic in terms of concealed carry and the small revolver is an ideal choice for a number of reasons.

Small semiautomatic pistols have always been a challenge. For many years a small gun was a compromise, as bullet technology had yet to catch up and the best options were disappointing at best. To go small meant you had to resort to weak ammunition, often with non-expanding full metal jacket bullets. The rounded profile of many of these bullets would ensure reliable feeding in the small guns at the expense of wounding potential.

The most popular small cartridge was the .380 ACP, a tiny automatic pistol round of roughly the same bore size as the .38 Special. The .380 ACP’s bullets were far lighter than most found in the .38 Special and came in at about 90-100 grains. Compare this to the 125gr starting weight of the .38 Special, which itself can handle bullets up to 200 grains.

It is because of the popularity of the .380 among women shooters that bullet technology stepped up to their modern standards. More performance needed to be squeezed out of a smaller package and expanding bullet technology reached new heights. This technology was, of course, applied to other cartridges, including .38 Special.

The main drawback with modern automatics is that they are still somewhat difficult to use and sometimes require a great deal of hand strength to operate. Because they are small, the slides of these pistols feature strong and compact springs which are needed to allow the gun to function correctly. The small size and stiff springs make them a challenge to use and a potential liability in a moment of need.

The small revolver is the answer for many women. Since there is no slide to pull back, loading and unloading is easy and effortless. The small revolver is also substantially more reliable than comparably sized automatics as it does not rely on the power of the cartridge to cycle the gun between shots. The revolver works simply by pulling the trigger. In the event of a bad primer, the trigger can be pulled again to move to the next cartridge. With an automatic, you would need both hands to clear the faulty cartridge from the action and chamber a new round.

Modern .38 Special self-defense ammunition like the Snub Nose Pro is ideally suited for the woman who carries. Not only is it made with the most advanced materials, it has recoil only marginally greater than a small automatic. The solid bullet combined with well-researched propellants makes for a cartridge that doesn’t sacrifice power for reliability.

Steinel 38 Special Ammo PackagingLooking to the Future

Despite its age, the .38 Special continues to enjoy a large following. It has worn many hats over the years and has seen use in virtually every corner of the world for every conceivable end a cartridge has. Today it has a home in the pockets and purses of the average concealed carrier, and it is likely that this role will sustain it for another hundred years.

The future of the .38 Special is dependent on adaptation. Unlike many rounds that exist only because of a passing fad, the .38 Special is an adaptable creature. It has been used for war, police work, as signaling ammunition for downed pilots, won records in target shooting, and has had the backs of good, honest folks in hard times. In every instance, the .38 has been adapted because it is one of the most inherently dependable rounds ever made.

As material science and manufacturing technology improve, the .38 will continue to see new advancements. While other rounds come and go, the .38 has seemingly never lost relevance. It adapts to new things readily because of how well understood it is. Today we are in yet another heyday of the .38 Special. When the going gets tough, it is often the round people fall back on despite not being the fastest, most powerful, or most accurate.

 

SHOP 38 SPL


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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Ruger SP-101. Note: Self defense/house protection/concealed carry” is only 1/3 the reason for owning a .38 caliber revolver. For the casual shooter, home owner including apartment, combo, and duplex dweller, and for the outdoorsman/sportsman the .38 Special/.357 Magnum remains a versatile, practical, and useful handgun. While the .44 Magnum has it’s niche in Alaska, the average law abiding citizen can still cling to the .38! Too…there is certainly a place for Colt AR-15 rifles, high capacity 9mm semi-automatic pistols, and more “tactical” firearms. But these have not made the revolver obsolete in the 21st century. Read my letter below. —Jim Farmer

    Lake County Examiner: Lakeview, Oregon: Wednesday, March 24, 2021/Letters To The Editor

    Letter to the editor: Best general-purpose handgun

    For a general-purpose handgun consider Ruger’s SP-101 .357 Magnum revolver: “stainless steel”, 5 shot swing out cylinder (double-action), with 4.2” barrel and target sights for the citizen
    owning only one handgun. Versatile for “self-defense/house protection/concealed carry”, as a kit and trail gun for the outdoorsman/ sportsman, and for urban metro vs. wilderness rural use.
    At 30 oz. unloaded lightweight (for the hiker, backpacker, trapper), yet heavy enough to handle the .357 Magnum. Loaded with .38 Special 148 grain lead target wad-cutter ammo (next to a .22 or .32) practical for hunting small game: rabbit, squirrel, and grouse (for the campfire skillet), for dispatching vermin such as raccoon, skunk, possum, etc. Even for butchering livestock such as cattle with a head shot. Loaded with CCI’s classic .38 Special shot or snake load of No. 9 shot highly effective in killing rattlesnakes. Readily and instantly accessible in reach via a nightstand, dresser or bureau drawer, or next to a sleeping bag inside a tent is very comforting armed security to have, especially at night!

    This handgun would also be great for a long-haul trucker, or hay hauler, to carry. Even for the motorist traveling on a road trip. Yes, bear in mind being broken down, stranded, and having to spend the night alone in your vehicle. This .38/.357 revolver combination along with an Atomic Beam Flashlight, survival knife, fresh drinking water, food, toilet paper, shovel, matches, wool blanket, etc. could certainly take back the night. Even for a woman it’s smaller frame and size would still fit her smaller hands. And firing.38 Special ammo in this .*357 Magnum could still be handled by a female. Double action revolvers can be improved with aftermarket combat rubber grips.

    I recommend reading, “Meet Ruger’s SP-101 Revolver: The Ideal Gun For Self Defense”, by Kyle Mizokan via the April 2019 issue of The National Interest.

    -James A. Farmer Merrill, Oregon (Klamath County): Long Live The State of Jefferson!

    *.357 Magnum revolvers will chamber and fire .38 Special ammo, but not the reverse. Also….”SP-101 Like Physics, Only Practical” by Law Officer for January 3, 2009 is
    well worth reading. On the Net: Ruger Firearms at http://www.ruger.com.

  • Self defense/house protection/concealed carry is only 1/3 the reason for owning a .38 caliber revolver. Read my letter below

    Lake County Examiner: Lakeview, Oregon: Wednesday, March 24, 2021/Letters To The Editor
    Best general-purpose handgun

    For a general-purpose handgun consider Ruger’s SP-101 .357 Magnum revolver: “stainless steel”, 5 shot swing out cylinder (double-action), with 4.2” barrel and target sights for the citizen
    owning only one handgun. Versatile for “self-defense/house protection/concealed carry”, as a kit and trail gun for the outdoorsman/ sportsman, and for urban metro vs. wilderness rural use.
    At 30 oz. unloaded lightweight (for the hiker, backpacker, trapper), yet heavy enough to handle the .357 Magnum.  Loaded with .38 Special 148 grain lead target wad-cutter ammo (next to a .22 or .32) practical for hunting small game: rabbit, squirrel, and grouse (for the campfire skillet), for dispatching vermin such as raccoon, skunk, possum, etc. Even for butchering livestock such as cattle with a head shot. Loaded with CCI’s classic .38 Special shot or snake load of No. 9 shot highly effective in killing rattlesnakes. Readily and instantly accessible in reach via a nightstand, dresser or bureau drawer, or next to a sleeping bag inside a tent is very comforting armed security to have, especially at night!

    This handgun would also be great for a long-haul trucker, or hay hauler, to carry. Even for the motorist traveling on a road trip. Yes, bear in mind being broken down, stranded, and having to spend the night alone in your vehicle. This .38/.357 revolver combination along with an Atomic Beam Flashlight, survival knife, fresh drinking water, food, toilet paper, shovel, matches, wool blanket, etc. could certainly take back the night. Even for a woman it’s smaller frame and size would still fit her smaller hands. And firing.38 Special ammo in this .*357 Magnum could still be handled by a female. Double action revolvers can be improved with aftermarket combat rubber grips. I recommend reading, “Meet Ruger’s SP-101 Revolver: The Ideal Gun For
    Self Defense”, by Kyle Mizokan via the April 2019 issue of The National Interest.

    James A. Farmer Merrill, Oregon (Klamath County): Long Live The State of Jefferson!

    *.357 Magnum revolvers will chamber and fire .38 Special ammo, but not the reverse.   Also….”SP-101 Like Physics, Only Practical” by Law Officer for January 3, 2009 is
     well worth reading. Finally “Dial 911 and Die: The Shocking Truth About The Police Protection Myth (1999)” by Richard W. Stevens. An introduction caption in this book
    states, “Even the most advanced cellular phone is no substitute (match) for a good .38 Special.” Dial 911 and Die was formerly available from JPFO, Inc. at http://www.jpfo.org.
    JPFO, Inc. is “America’s Aggressive Civil Rights Organization” and is non-NRA affiliated.

  • Michael T Bolduc says:

    50 year old factory loaded ammunition will cover your azz when needed.Im an Army veteran,I’ve fired WWII era .45 acp ammo in my 1911 pistol.. Bang,Bang every trigger pull. 🇺🇸

  • Dan says:

    I have read many articles regarding the effectiveness of varying
    calibers for self defense, etc. It was a 22 round that unfortunately
    killed Bobby Kennedy many years ago.
    I have never fired upon anyone, but I feel like I could protect my
    family with. 22, 380, 9mm, 10mm if I was put in that position.
    Placement and proximity are key considerations. I hope I am
    never put in a position that I would require using any of my hand-
    guns. I just believe how we use our pistol, regardless of situation,
    is the key to success.

  • GEORGE HEBERT says:

    Accuracy of the 38 Special becomes compromised at what distance? I suspect it is best for close distance, perhaps at 20 feet or less?

  • Steve Beacon says:

    Is 30 year old 38 special snub nose amo safe and reliable?

    • Andy Steinel says:

      Hard to say, but if the case walls look in-tact the worst case scenario is a dirty, underpowered load and possibly a squib. I personally would not use it for any type of defensive purposes.

      • Hammer says:

        I would say that if you have a misfire on 38 special that there is a good soldier right behind him…

        Think about it.

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